In 2016, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange released hacked Democratic Party emails that were widely credited with boosting President Trump’s underdog campaign. But if Assange thought that meant he would receive more generous treatment from the U.S. once Trump won, he was mistaken. An explosive Yahoo! News story published this weekend reports that some Trump officials, most notably onetime secretary of State and former CIA head Mike Pompeo — were hell-bent on punishing Assange, specifically for his leak of CIA hacking tools in 2017. And they were willing to go to extreme, likely illegal lengths to do so.
In 2019, Assange was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy by British authorities, arrested, and transferred to a London prison as a legal case around his possible extradition to the U.S. unfolds. (The charges against him revolve around his associations with Chelsea Manning, not subsequent leaks.) Yahoo revealed that the way things played out in the end were relatively tame compared to what might have gone down.
Here are the five biggest takeaways from their story.
Pompeo strongly advocated for Assange’s rendition
When Pompeo declared WikiLeaks a “non-hostile state intelligence service” in 2017, it was a change in rhetorical posture but also a designation that opened the door for far more aggressive surveillance of the organization under the aegis of “offensive counterintelligence,” Yahoo reports. Pompeo began planning for the fate of Assange himself. He and other officials proposed that Americans seize Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy, transfer him to a second country where he could be interrogated, then move him to the U.S. — the kind of maneuver the U.S. preferred for many terror suspects post 9/11. In a less drastic scenario, intelligence officers would simply turn Assange over to the British after kidnapping him from the embassy. These extreme moves appeared to be on very shaky legal ground, especially because Assange had not been formally charged in the U.S., and there was fierce internal opposition to carrying them out. Some White House lawyers officials were reportedly so concerned about the plan that they alerted lawmakers in an effort to draw attention to it.
The U.S. prepared for a possible street battle with Russia
Yahoo reports that as the rendition plot was being batted around, U.S. intelligence caught wind that Russia was about to conduct its own operation at the embassy: taking Assange back to Russia. The U.S. began preparing to block that from happening — preparations that veered into cinematic territory:
In response, the CIA and the White House began preparing for a number of scenarios to foil Assange’s Russian departure plans, according to three former officials. Those included potential gun battles with Kremlin operatives on the streets of London, crashing a car into a Russian diplomatic vehicle transporting Assange and then grabbing him, and shooting out the tires of a Russian plane carrying Assange before it could take off for Moscow. (U.S. officials asked their British counterparts to do the shooting if gunfire was required, and the British agreed, according to a former senior administration official.
With Ecuador having signed off on the plan to exfiltrate Assange to Russia and a bevy of undercover agents from various countries stationed around the embassy, the stage seemed set for some sort of showdown. But Assange himself rejected the idea, and the Russians canceled the operation after learning that the Americans were aware of it.
Killing Assange was discussed — but was never a serious option
Yahoo reports, “Some senior officials inside the CIA and the Trump administration even discussed killing Assange, going so far as to request ‘sketches’ or ‘options’ for how to assassinate him.” Trump reportedly raised the idea in a 2017 meeting. But if kidnapping Assange was a legally shaky proposition (at best), assassinating him was truly a bridge too far for a preponderance of decision-makers — even for the Trump administration.
“That kind of lethal action would be way outside of a legitimate intelligence or counterintelligence activity,” a former senior intelligence community lawyer told Yahoo. The plan went nowhere.
The U.S. had inside info on Assange’s exact movements
Yahoo reports that a Spanish security company Ecuador had hired to help shield its embassy from prying eyes was in fact doing double duty — working for U.S. intelligence as well. Thus, American officials were privy to Assange’s minute-to-minute movements:
The Spanish firm was providing U.S. intelligence agencies with detailed reports of Assange’s activities and visitors as well as video and audio surveillance of Assange from secretly installed devices in the embassy, the employees testified. A former U.S. national security official confirmed that U.S. intelligence had access to video and audio feeds of Assange within the embassy but declined to specify how it acquired them.
It is not clear to what extent the surveillance of Assange aided the U.S. in its calculations regarding its plans, or lack thereof.
Some U.S. officials tried to make it easier to arrest Glenn Greenwald
The American government’s grudge against WikiLeaks stretches back to Barack Obama’s first term, when Assange first made his name by publishing a video of a U.S. air strike in Iraq, then leaking vast caches of classified diplomatic cables. The Obama team generally paid more attention to rule-of-law considerations than its successors did. But in 2013, WikiLeaks assisted Edward Snowden in traveling from Hong Kong to Russia after he had leaked explosive National Security Agency documents to several journalists. At that point, some Obama officials wanted to designate WikiLeaks, as well as two of those journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras — as “information brokers,” rather than journalists. This would have made it easier for the government to potentially prosecute them. The plan was ultimately vetoed.
Poitras told Yahoo that the attempt was “bone-chilling and a threat to journalists worldwide,” while Greenwald said, “I am not the least bit surprised that the CIA, a longtime authoritarian and anti-democratic institution, plotted to find a way to criminalize journalism and spy on and commit other acts of aggression against journalists.”